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Rick Telander's "Heaven is a Playground," based on his experiences on the streets of New York City in 1974, is right up there with the best basketball books of all time.
And while it's a story rich with Brooklyn, the street, and basketball players, it's really the story of Rodney Parker.
As described, Parker is an "uncle" to young players. He's the conduit between the athletes on the playground and the college coaches who can free them from the grind of inner city poverty. Parker's a shoulder to cry on, a mentor, a coach, and someone who might lend you a few dollars if you're in trouble. He's also something of a mystery.
In the summer of 1974, as Telander tells it, Parker seemed to be making most of his money by scalping tickets:
What was Rodney Parker? The same topic recurs later in the book in reference to James "Fly" Williams:
Ever since I met Rodney, I have been trying to determine exactly what it is he gets from all his wheeling and dealing, why he works so hard finding downtrodden boys and sending them to schools, compiling massive phone and food bills in the process with no apparent recompense. Does he simply get money under the table for delivery? Is he looking for the one big apple to make him rich, or is it something more prestigious, that mythical "super-agent job. Or is it simply goodwill?-Rodney the hyperthyroid samaritan in gym shoes.
I've begun to believe it's all of them, perhaps in fluctuating, unknowable degrees: Rodney the Mystery Man .He could keep an analyst busy for years, says Manhattan friend Bob Kalich, a part-time author. "He's an angel with unhealthy parts.
Personally, I was never convinced that Rodney was not actually selling his players in the fashion of the traditional flesh peddlers--dangling out talent to see which hungry scout, coach, or alumni group would pay the most. But a recent visit to agent Lew Schaffel's had shown me otherwise.
The talk around the playgrounds had been that when Fly blew the reputed $1 million no-cut Denver contract he lost Rodney at least $100,000.
"We-ell," said Lew. "Realistically, I think if Fly had done things right he could have gotten more like a no-cut $500,000, and if Rodney had signed a split-deal with an agent he could have gotten half of ten percent or about $25,000. But here we didn't offer him a thing. Nothing. Oh, we might have given him a little something as a thank you when it was all over, but he didn't even ask for money."
What was it then that Rodney wanted?
"He wanted to be Fly's friend."
It's unclear if we'll ever get real answers to some of those questions, especially as now we will not be able to ask Parker himself.
I am very sad to report that yesterday morning Rodney Parker died in New York at the age of 71.
Parker's daughter Kristin Parker told me earlier today that Parker had been living in Harlem, suffering from pulmonary fibrosis which had made it harder and harder for him to breathe as he aged. A very proud man, he had hidden his illness as best he could, and for much of the last year would allow only Kristin to care for him.
He also wanted nothing to do with doctors. A little over a week ago, she relays, he was laboring worse than ever, and had not been eating. Against his protests, she called the EMTs. When they arrived, he told Kristin to "get those people out of my house."
The EMTs talked to a supervisor, which did nothing to change his mind.
Eventually the police were summoned, and still he wouldn't budge.
They negotiated. At one point, an officer mentioned that there were other things they should be doing.
"You have better things to do?" he shot back. "Go do it."
Eventually, they convinced him to go to the hospital ("When the police arrived," Kristin remembers him saying later, "I knew the jig was up.") where doctors found a collapsed lung and evidence of other trouble that was, as far as Kristin knows, not fully diagnosed before his death.
"Even at the hospital, though, he was making everybody laugh," says Kristin. "I mean, they said 'You have pulmonary fibrosis -- what do you do for a living?' Most people who have that work where they breathe bad air. But he just said: 'I'm a ticket scalper!' Who says that?"
When people asked him why he hadn't sought medical care, his response was often along the lines of "what good would it do?" Fitting, then, in a way, that less than 48 hours after doing what everyone told him he should do, he passed away.
The Parkers are in the process of making funeral arrangements at the moment. Kristin says Telander has been tapped for a eulogy, and expects many of Parker's basketball friends -- there are a lot of them, including some big names -- to come together to celebrate a unique life.
If you knew Rodney Parker and have any stories to share about the man, please do so in the comments below.